Month: September 2019

Greetings from the Department Head

New building, new teaching approach, new people – there is a lot of change and excitement in the air for the Physics Department in 2019. The most obvious change is that physics has moved into a newly renovated building. What most alumni will remember as the Math Building has been taken down to its frame and rebuilt as the new physics building, formally Gant South. The new building features large windows with lots of light, revamped teaching labs, and a theory suite at the east end of each hallway. There are also plenty of meeting rooms and nooks, complete with writing spaces, to foster spontaneous discussions. We moved into the offices and teaching spaces at the start of fall semester, whereas the research lab relocations are ongoing as I write.

Along with the new building comes new teaching laboratories. The most striking of these are our studio-labs, located in the Gant Plaza building in the center of the Gant Complex. These studio labs have allowed us to redesign how we teach our introductory physics with calculus courses. Instead of three one-hour lectures per week and a three hour lab, there are now three two-hour meetings per week with mixed activities. The rooms are arranged with groups sitting around tables, and class time is spent on group efforts to explore concepts, solve problems, and conduct laboratory measurements. We have been developing this program using the Phys 1601 and 1602 courses for physics majors. This fall we rolled out the first of four other courses to be taught in this method with Phys 1501, to be followed in successive semesters by Phys 1502, Phys 1401, and Phys 1402.

If your travels bring you to the Storrs area, please stop by our new building. I will give anyone interested a tour myself if my schedule allows.

We also have several new faces around the department this fall. We have hired two new assistant professors in astrophysics, Chiara Mingarelli and Daniel Angles-Alcazar. Both have been hired in a bridge program with the Flatiron Institute of the Simons Foundation. Simons is the leading philanthropic foundation focused on science, and the four centers hosted at the Flatiron are world leaders in computational methods. We also have two new full-time teaching faculty, Niraj Ghimire and Sarah Trallero. Niraj was our own Ph.D. student who had previously worked on our Studio Physics development team. Sarah has been working with our teaching lab support team, with previous experience at Kansas State teaching studio-style physics courses. We have several new members of our teaching lab support team, with three new technicians. Zach Transport and James Jaconetta began working with us last January, and Hannah Morrill joined us over the summer. And finally, while I am not a new face, I took over as department head about a year ago and this is my first go-round writing a welcome to our newsletter. I would like to personally thank Professor Nora Berrah, our past department head, for putting our department on a firm footing that has made my job much easier.

Barry Wells

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell – 2019 Katzenstein Lecturer

The UConn Physics Department is delighted to announce that our 2019 Distinguished Katzenstein Lecturer will be Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. The lecture will take place on Friday November 8.

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell (pictured at left) is world famous for her discovery of pulsars in 1967. Pulsars are a special type of neutron star, the rotating dense remnant of a massive star. Pulsars have highly magnetic surfaces and emit a beam of electromagnetic radiation along their poles. This beam of light moves into and out of our line-of-sight at quick, constant intervals, appearing as a regular “pulse” of light.

At the time of this discovery, Bell Burnell was a graduate student at the University of Cambridge and worked with her supervisor, Anthony Hewish, to construct the Interplanetary Scintillation Array to study another class of objects called quasars. In the course of her daily detailed analysis, she noticed a strange “pulsing” signal in her data. Jokingly dubbed “Little Green Man 1” (LGM-1), further data-taking and analysis revealed this signal to be rapidly spinning neutron star, eventually dubbed a “pulsar.”

Bell Burnell’s discovery is considered one of the most important achievements of the 20th century and was recognized by a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974, awarded to her supervisor Anthony Hewish as well as to astronomer Martin Ryle. While many condemned the omission of Bell Burnell for the award, she rose above, graciously stating, “I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them. Finally, I am not myself upset about it – after all, I am in good company, am I not!”

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has a highly distinguished career. Some notable highlights include serving as head of the Royal Astronomical Society and as the first female president of both the Institute of Physics and The Royal Society of Edinburgh. She was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to astronomy in 2007. Her story has been featured in a number of works, including the BBC Four’s Beautiful Minds and BBC Two’s Horizon. Bell Burnell is currently the chancellor of the University of Dundee in Scotland and a visiting professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford.

In 2018 Bell Burnell was awarded a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Only four such prizes have been awarded, one to Stephen Hawking, one to the CERN scientists who discovered the Higgs Boson, and one to the LIGO team for their detection of gravitational waves. This award recognizes her discovery of pulsars and “a lifetime of inspiring scientific leadership.” In addition to her research accolades, her teaching, leadership, and work to lift up women and minorities in science is without parallel.